Sure, you can get your fill of corn dogs and cotton candy down on the boardwalk, but tucked into Santa Cruz’s historic downtown buildings and in nearby communities are surprising finds, where talented chefs and artisanal food makers will tempt you to try their latest creations.
First, let’s talk coffee. Warm up on foggy mornings with a richly flavorful brew at two local favorites, Santa Cruz Coffee Roasting Company and Lulu Carpenter's. For decadent pastries along with your java, try Kelly’s French Bakery, a happy find tucked among warehouses on the west side of town. Or if you’d rather sip on a local craft brew while you enjoy one of the bakery’s gourmet sandwiches, take a seat at Santa Cruz Mountain Brewing, located in the same building; you can order from Kelly’s full menu there. Another solid lunch option is Zoccoli’s Delicatessen (we dare you not to love the hot tri-tip sandwich), and double-scoops of lively flavors (ginger snap or lemon poppyseed) at Penny Ice Creamery. Marianne’s is another favorite for ice cream, with innovative flavors such as spicy Mexican Chocolate or Northern Oregon Blackberry.
Hopefully you’ll have room for an amazing dinner. There’s a huge range of options—get fresh seafood and sunset views at Johnny’s Harborside and Crow’s Nest; or for Italian cuisine, settle in at homey and charming Lillian’s Italian Kitchen (black truffle-stuffed gnocchi for grownups, classic meatballs for kids). La Posta, in the Seabright neighborhood, features a fresh, market-driven menu, and downtown, Laili serves Mediterranean cuisine with an Afghan twist. Try one of their filet mignon kabobs for a satisfying grilled-meat fix, or one of their vegetarian- and vegan-friendly options, like pomegranate eggplant.
Insider tip: If you don’t want to limit yourself to just one restaurant, check out Abbott Square Market downtown. This indoor-outdoor food hall is housed in the city’s former jail, and is home to such purveyors as All Aboard (for lobster rolls, oysters, and chowders), and Poke It, which specializes in Asian and Hawaiian poke bowls. The adjoining Museum of Art & History is well deserving of a visit as well, and if you can, make it to either one—the market or the museum—during one of MAH’s First Friday events; the art-loving crowd spills over into Abbott Square’s bars and restaurants and at that point, all bets are off.